Questionable Tastes TM_PG_SPANCOCT_AP_002

If I say “wine” and “cocktail,” most Americans will jump immediately to one thing: Sangria. In fact, they might even exclaim something like this: “Woohooo, sangria!” No discussion of wine cocktails can truly begin until we discuss sangria. So I may as well start with a full confession: I do not like sangria.

In fact, I do not like it so much that I actually may have put together an ebook on wine cocktails simply in order to convince people to leave their lame old sangria behind. But soon enough, I realized this was silly on my part. I mean, who am I to tell you not to drink sangria? If you happen to like soggy fruit soaked in cheap wine, by all means, enjoy yourself.

My problem with sangria is two-fold. First, it’s almost always made incorrectly. For the record, sangria is not simply chopped fruit dumped into wine. No, true sangria should always have a significant portion of brandy and also possibly a small amount of liqueur. Ask what they put in your sangria at your local happy hour and most likely it will make you sad.


Into the Wild Brew Yonder

Jump into the wide world of small-batch brewing with True Brews


My first encounter with homemade kombucha took place about 10 years ago. My younger sister had been brewing a batch in our parents’ sunroom when she was offered a last-minute job at a summer camp. She left her gallon of tea and SCOBY (also known as the symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) behind when she left to take the gig, and not knowing what to do with it, my parents let it sit. A month later, I came to visit and my mom asked if I’d help her dispose of the contents of the jar.

By that point, the bacteria and yeast creature in the jar had grown to be approximately four inches thick and had a disturbing flesh-like consistency. It took the liberal application of a serrated bread knife to free it from the jar and when I was finished wrestling it out to the compost heap, I swore that I’d never again tangle with something so otherworldly.

However, fast-forward a decade and you’ll find that I am now eating those words. I’ve been brewing kombucha in my own kitchen for the last six months or so and have found it to be easy, delicious, and satisfying. What’s more, it has made me deeply curious about the many other kinds of homebrews and liquid ferments I can make in my small city apartment. MORE


Woe to the thirsty soul who, only familiar with ginger ale, picks up a ginger beer. Pity this poor sap, this rube, who thinks that he can glug-glug ginger beer down his gullet just like his Canada Dry or Schweppes, but instead finds himself attacked by the ginger bite, as if a tiny, ginger-fierce dog was running circles in his mouth, tearing up the carpet, barking up his nose, and slobbering down his throat.

Oh, I have been this sap.

Soda Week

Rating Root Beer

After tasting every brand we could find, we picked our six favorites.


Root beer is one of America’s iconic soft drinks. Many of us share the same childhood memories of ice cream floats or bright orange drive-up stands, and these sweet suds remain a favorite even among people that don’t like soda.

The timeless beverage hasn’t really been around forever, though. Root beer was invented with prohibition in mind. Charles Hines, a pro-temperance pharmacist from Philadelphia, created his own version on a popular boozy root tea. Then, in an effort to make it sound more appealing to Pennsylvania miners, he named it root beer and introduced the world to it at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition.

Originally, bitter infusions of roots, vines, herbs and spices like sassafras and licorice were used to make root beer. Today’s recipes call for vanilla, wintergreen, anise, and occasionally cloves or mint.

The Table Matters tasting panel convened to sample more than a dozen root beers, which included mass-marketed sodas, as well as brands crafted by small producers. We even included a few of root beer’s close cousin, birch beer, which is made with birch root instead of sassafras root. MORE

Soda Week

From-Scratch Sodas

It’s easier than you to think to take the taste of summer produce into fall.


I like the ritual of an evening cocktail hour—a drink paired with something salty signals the end of the work day, that it’s time to relax. It’s lovely to have something to sip while making dinner or chatting about the day. The only problem is that I am not much of a drinker. It’s not that I’m opposed; my body just doesn’t like alcohol. More than one glass of wine makes me uncomfortably hot and flushed. If I venture past a single cocktail, I end up feeling like I’ve been bludgeoned.

In my twenties, I fought against my biological desire to live a dry life, but now firmly settled into my thirties, I’ve come to accept my genetic incompatibility with booze. Though I’ve not been able to take part in much of the re-emerging cocktail scene, I’m grateful for it nonetheless. That’s because it had led to a renewed interest in herbal syrups, fruit and vinegar shrubs, and other tinctures that go beautifully in a glass of fizzy water.

When fresh herbs are abundant, I’ll infuse them into small batches of simple syrup. Rosemary lemon syrup is fresh on hot days and can do double duty in homemade vinaigrette. During peach season, I’ll peel and mash two or three ripe ones into a jar with sugar, apple cider vinegar, and grated ginger, for a bracing concoction that hits both the sweet and savory taste buds.

When fresh apple cider is in season, I regularly cook down a half gallon of juice into two concentrated cups of syrup. Flavored with a little mint and honey, it works with either sparkling water during that post-work, pre-dinner time or in a mug of hot water later in the evening. The best part of these shrubs and syrups is that once you learn the ratios and get a hang of the technique, you can use whatever fruit, herbs, or vinegars you have on hand. MORE

Questionable Tastes, Soda Week

Spiked Soda

An E-Z guide to lazy bartending.


Sure, the whole mixology thing is super, and craft bartending has ushered in a renaissance of drinking over the past decade. But some days I feel like we’ve entered a baroque period of cocktail making. Though I write about cocktails for a living, even I weary of housemade bitters and tinctures, eight-ingredient drinks, the often-nonsensical “layering” of overproof rums, precious techniques like the “hard shake,” menus where 43 percent of the offerings contain mezcal, and a 17-minute wait for my second cocktail.

Sometimes, I just want something simpler. Also: I am often impatient. Further: I am usually lazy.

Given these facts, I am never more satisfied than when I can find what I call a “One Plus One” cocktail. These would be drinks that require the mixological technique of opening a bottle of spirit and then a bottle of something bubbly, and then pouring both into highball glass filed with ice cubes. A gin and tonic would be a “One Plus One” cocktail. So would the lazy man’s best friend, the rum and Coke.

Now, a semantics argument occasionally arises over this type of beverage. Some insist that a soda plus spirit is technically considered a “mixed drink” rather than a cocktail. My advice is to avoid people who split such hairs. But if you cannot, please remind them most One Plus One cocktails also involve a garnish, a dash of bitters, or a salted rim. This means most contain three ingredients–four if you count the ice–and therefore, they can safely call them “cocktails.”

Here, I have included a half-dozen of my favorite E-Z drinks. Serve them as refreshments while the summer heat remains with us. They all prove that just because you a lazy bartender, you can still be a gracious host.


Soda Week

State of the Soda Ban

There's a culture war brewing over soft drinks, but is anybody winning?


Crushed large soda cupWhen Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter gave the keynote address at the National Soda Summit this summer, he seemed like a natural choice to rail against the public health risks of sugar-sweetened drinks. Sodas have been the bête noire in his fight against Philadelphia’s obesity problem. He has tried and failed twice to pass a soda tax, which would add two cents per ounce to the cost of sweetened beverages. With funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, his administration has launched a campaign to reduce soda consumption and encourage healthier behaviors. In a city where 63 percent of residents are overweight or obese, Mayor Nutter has made it clear: Big Soda is enemy number one.

Until the soda summit, however, the mayor had been tight-lipped on the idea of regulating soda consumption directly. But his speech in Washington raised a few eyebrows here at home. In discussing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s so-called soda ban, which, if passed as expected next month, will prohibit the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces, Mayor Nutter praised Mayor Bloomberg’s plan. MORE

Soda Week TM_SW_INTRO_FI_001

Soda and I have always had a conflicted relationship.

On the one hand, soda is a distinct taste of my childhood. I always loved the taste of, say, spicy Pennsylvania Dutch birch beer — though I would only have it a few times a year, as a treat with pizza on the boardwalk at the Shore.

Every once in a while, also for a treat, my father would bring home a random supply of local Frank’s sodas, including the coveted Black Cherry Wishniak (like ambrosia for an 11-year-old). Anyone who grew up around here in the 1980s remembers Harry Kalas reciting the ubiquitous slogan, “Is it Frank’s? Thanks” during Phillies games, as well as those Frank’s commercials starring Patty Smyth and the group Scandal. Sadly, Frank’s was sold to Coca Cola in 1990, and the sodas soon disappeared from shelves.

Frank’s Black Cherry Wishniak lives on, however—revived by a specialty retailer, sold for $70 a case and called “the Cheesesteak of Beverages” by none other than infamously coiffed Philadelphian Larry Mendte. Yes, this is the strange mindspace I enter when I start thinking about soda. MORE